These past few weeks, one song’s featured heavily in my YouTube history: the late Japanese producer Nujabes’ “Shiki no Uta”, the beautiful ending theme to the phenomenal anime series Samurai Champloo. Please, before you do or read anything else, just take five minutes and do your ears an enormous favor, and listen:
Did you feel it too? That wistful nostalgia that threatens to drown your eyes and soul in tears at half-forgotten flashes of childhood? And the vibrant joy that accompanies and balances it, that makes you dream of wandering through sunny, grassy hills? The sensation that you’ve just remembered something you once knew intimately?
I felt something like that this year at the Autorama hot rod show. Like an iron cloud of automotive ennui was lifted, and I was once again a kid in high school, poring over Road & Track in the library. Which I wouldn’t have believed possible, this time last year.
See, last year I was on the tail end of some mixed feelings from the 2016 Autorama. And as hard as it is to say, I had honestly felt a little dread and dare I say, boredom, at the thought of seeing more cars customized like that slammed Camaro. Which is why I stayed away from the Cobo Center last year. But this year, things had changed.
I’d made peace with some of the more...polarizing cars that were displayed there in 2016. And ultimately, as a celebration of automotive love, Autorama can be a lot of fun. So I grabbed my camera and tripod, ready to snap what caught my eye.
Autorama is nothing if not colorful. A million shades of paint carefully splashed across Detroit’s Cobo Center, each vehicle a tapestry fighting for your attention with crazy chrome, wild wheels, and mad mods. There’s no denying the passion on display, whether you love or hate the delivery method. When it comes these cars, it’s often a mix of both.
I expected to see candy Cadillacs and flaming deuce coupes. And there were quite a few of those. But I wasn’t expecting to sprint between stands, to make the most of my limited time on the floor. I hadn’t thought the show could capture me the way it did. Autorama may be billed as a hot rod show, but it’s really more of a chance for all enthusiasts—from experienced professionals to passionate owners—to show off the fruits of their customization labors. With subtle (-ish) sleepers, amazing bikes, and a few things that were probably imagined with the help of various illicit substances, this year’s harvest was bountiful.
Since it’s Autorama, I have to start with the hot rods. The traditional deuce coupe formula was well represented. One of my favorites was created by students in Washtenaw Community College’s Custom Cars & Concepts program.
Let this be one more nail firmly in the coffin of the notion that the younger generations don’t care about cars.
The stereotypical hot rod involves a T-bucket and too much engine to properly cover. But the Model T is essentially the Swiss Army of early cars, and it lent itself to a variety of speed machines.
One of the most interesting at Autorama was this speedster: built on a Model T in 1958, it draws inspiration from the 1923 Fronty Indy/Dirt Track racer, and is the work of one Michigan native, Gordon S. Deye. Actually, this car’s practically a rolling “Pure Michigan” ad.
The bodywork was created by the late Frank Lynn of Ottawa Lake; the engine—which is original—was built by Paul Murrey in Temperance. Practically the only part of it that isn’t from Michigan is the paint. The Deye family traced Gordon’s creation through four owners before finally purchasing it in 2014. After a complete, bare-metal restoration, it was repainted by Wilkinson’s of Sylvania, Ohio.
But there’s more to the hot rod story than T-buckets and deuce coupes. As the Detroit horsepower wars waged from the early 50s to the early 70s, the scene shifted to muscle cars and street rods, so the whole family could race between the lights.
Autorama had perhaps the archetypal street rod, a 67 Nova powered by a 355-cubic-inch, 718-hp motor, decked out with dancing flames and enough rear rubber to supply erasers to all of Detroit’s schools.
My favorites, though, were the subtler street rods—if any street rod could ever be called ‘subtle.’
I’ve always felt that for cars of the 50s and 60s, adding too many styling touches or going overboard with the paint detracts from the clean simplicity of the sheet-metal. And judging by some of the cars on display, I’m not the only one that thinks this way.
I was most bewitched by LFTOVR, a captivating red 1968 Camaro modified by Pete & Karen Newell.
Just LOOK at those rear wheels. They’re so simple and clean!
Another Camaro in the hall caught my eye as well, though for different reasons.
That green one on the left? That’s the original paint: patina, rust spots, and all.
The silver Camaro next to it may have been cleaner, but I kinda preferred the green one. It showed that the car had been used and enjoyed, not put away in some garage for its whole life, the owner worried over every nick and scrape. And I dig that.
I also dug how Autorama, compared to when I first went, seemed to have exploded with vehicular variety. If you weren’t into swole hot rods, there was probably still something for you there. The show is ultimately about celebrating car customization, and boy did the displays not disappoint.
Some were fairly simple, like this 1963.5 Ford Galaxie 500.
Another was the amazing Gerber/Tracy Special, a belly tanker resplendent in royal purple, ready to pound the salt at Bonneville into submission. In fact, it’s done so before.
Belly tankers draw their name—and sleek shape—from their origins as WWII plane fuel tanks. After the war was over, these tanks were doomed to rust away in some junkyard. But they were snapped up, fitted with massive engines, and raced on the Flats for the glory of absolute speed. This very car was featured in Roadkill last year, actually. With a 375-hp, Esslinger Engineering inline-4 mated to a Jericho 5-speed, this was one hell of a
flying speeding purple people eater.
The Gerber/Tracy Special was just one example of how Autorama broke my expectations this year. Walking up, I would’ve thought most of the racing machines would be like this Creamsicle-orange 1980 Oldsmobile Cutlass: street cars ‘roided-up to drop quick times at a set of Christmas lights. Incredible from a technical perspective, sure, but...I’ve kind of been there, seen that.
But I was wrong. I couldn’t capture every single racer, but all of them showed that the art of speed always benefits from a bit more sparkle.
If you’re a drag-race disciple, I give you this amazing technicolor dragster, with enough piping to give Willy Wonka a run for his money.
Then there’s the Green Hornet, powered by twin 150cc, 55-hp engines burning nitro-alcohol.
I don’t know what series this competes in, but I desperately want to see this mean green machine zoom.
At Autorama, though, assumptions and expectations don’t just fly out the window, they’re actively slammed through it by some truly ludicrous creations. Ones that seemed to have sprung from the mind of someone who’d decided to design a car while simultaneously huffing nitrous and dropping acid.
I give you, the uber-Beetle. Aka, what the inside of one of Jason Torchinsky’s fever dreams looks like.
This Beetle, if it wasn’t obvious, has had its air-cooled heart cranked up to 11000 via a Buick V8 transplant. I don’t know what dark ritual was needed for the designer to summon the spirits of Dr. Porsche and Carrol Shelby in order to create this, but I want in on that action. I have no idea what this car’s like to drive on the road, but something tells me it involves the phrases ‘abject terror’ and ‘uncontrollable cackling’.
If the Beetle left me giggling, the two 50s land yachts nearby left me whistling. Because WOW, they were stunning.
The first was a Cadillac that looked straight out of The Jetsons.
Yeah, those are stylized missiles in the grille. As I have the mental age of eight and watched way too many episodes of Swat Kats, that immediately makes it cool.
Then there was the Scarlet Lady, a 1956 Lincoln Continental Mk II. Allow me to start with the engine bay.
From a practical standpoint, closing everything off would probably make wrenching life difficult. But I can’t help thinking that Lincoln in the 50s wished they had the technological capability to make their engine bays this clean.
Actually, that kind of wish-fulfillment could basically be applied to the rest of the Scarlet Lady, or indeed any of the other rides at Autorama.
Road & Track recently talked with David Brown, the head of David Brown Automotive, in Geneva. His company, which had already created a modern Aston Martin DB5 based on a Jag XK-R chassis, has begun ‘remastering’ original Minis. The goal is to bring the Mini into the 21st century while retaining the charms it already possessed. In short, if a Mini was made with modern standards of technology, reliability, and engineering tolerances.
And that’s exactly what I saw at the Cobo Center. Not just in the custom rides ripped right from Tex Avery’s “World of Tomorrow” cartoons, but in the many well-preserved, mildly updated classics.
Honestly, these were what got me excited the most. Yes, a few of the customized cars were SEMA award winners, billboards for their creator’s technical and artistic expertise, but looking at pristine International Scouts lightly modified for every-day use was even better. Enthusiasts pine for cars like this because, well, they just aren’t made anymore.
And if I lingered on the 911 for a while, I stopped dead in my tracks when I saw these:
Skyline. GT-Rs. R32 & R34, side-by-side.
Seeing an R34 in-person automatically makes my day. But as I got closer, I realized something even more shocking: I had seen this R34 before. Parked in front of Ken Lingenfelter’s supercar garage.
Over a span of two years, it’d been modified and wrapped, and I still pined for it. Two guys walked up as I started taking photos, and we had a good 15 minute conversation about why the R34 was so desirable. One of those moments of bonding over cars and shooting the breeze; I’d never had that at Autorama before.
They asked me if anything really cool had caught my eye. I directed them over to the motorcycle section. I’d spent a good chunk of time taking photos of some old-school-cool Harley’s, Triumphs, and Hondas.
Not that there weren’t some flashier rides there, as well.
But the bike I specifically directed them towards was new. It’d been in production for a few years now, but I’d only just learned about it.
This is the MTT 420RR. The RR might officially stand for “Race Ready”, but it could just as easily refer to the motor, because it has a Rolls-Royce turbine motor.
Let me repeat that. This bike. Has. A turbine. Motor.
It revs to 80,000 RPM. And it can go over 250 mph.
Even typing this, several days after seeing it, I still shiver when it pops into my head. Rest assured, I’m going to be delving further into detail about this incredible technological tour de force in a later post. This beast looks to be the bastard love-child of a Confederate Hellcat and a Chrysler Turbine Car, and I can’t wait to share all the amazing specs.
But for right now, let me just say: this impressive bike—hell, the fact that this bike and those Skylines were even here—encapsulates what Autorama felt like this year. And what it needs to feel like every year.
It felt new. Exciting. Like the displays were starting to break new ground, while still celebrating the show’s heritage. A vibrant, Kodachrome celebration of the past, not just a tired, black-and-white re-tracing of steps. Ideas sprung from nostalgia, but not trapped by it. Invigorating freshness, not stale sentiments.
I’ve felt that staleness creep in sometimes. After a while, seeing the same take over and over again, hot rods start to bore me. Apathy grabbed me at the Dream Cruise, too. There’s only so many times I can walk past rows of Mustang-Camaro-Challenger-Mustang-Camaro-Challenger before TV static starts playing behind my eyes. And that utter lack of emotion scares me. The thought that I could one day walk around some of the most incredible cars and bikes ever assembled, and just go, “Meh,” is terrifying. I was quietly scared that I’d feel that way at Autorama this year.
Towards the end of the day, I saw my frenemy, the slammed Camaro, again. The one that inspired my post last year. It even had a friend this time: a matte black Challenger, similarly slammed, with appreciably subtle purple trim. But since I wrote that piece, and after spending a few hours at Autorama, I finally realized why that blue Camaro struck such a dissonant chord with me.
I once went on a tour of GM’s Heritage Center, and I walked away saddened, yet strangely inspired. Walking around those concepts and past triumphs, the “what-ifs”, was a dispiriting reminder of GM’s past. Why would they keep them around? But all those cars, from the DARPA projects to the LeSabre concept, are art. Statements on the culture they were built for, history lessons for all who take the time to look upon them. Harbingers of a technological and societal vision, they continue to tell us stories about who we were and are as a people. And no matter how weird or impractical they are, no matter how accurately or poorly they predicted the future, to throw them away into the trash like old school notes, is to dismiss what they are supposed to mean.
And that was my problem, I realize now, with the Camaro: I didn’t know what it was supposed to mean to me. I felt nothing for it. I could appreciate, as a professional, the quality and detail of the paint job. And the level of engineering that had to go into setting up the suspension. The interior was nice, too. But nothing drew me to it. It was just another hot rod, another pimped-out ride. An art work that said nothing to me. A statement empty of meaning. Something to be admired, and maybe even driven a tiny bit on really smooth, dry roads. Nothing like what was on display at the Goodwood Members’ Meeting, or at trials like the one run by the Vintage Sports Car Club. Not a vehicle (pun sadly intended) for afternoons spent carving back-roads, like my NB.
But those bikes I saw? I’ve seen people riding those. Hell, I’ve literally seen that exact R34 before. And I know all those racing sculptures tear up tracks. There was also a truck, stylized to look like something from the 50s, but it seems to be based on a normal pickup underneath. A worker, just wearing work clothes with a higher thread count. Then, of course, there were the restored and well-maintained classics.
These cars felt real. That green Camaro wore its life, its scars, dings, and days out in the sun and rain, with pride. I hope my
Sapphire Blue Mica cobalt blue Miata looks this good when it’s 50 years old. Because when I think of classic cars, this is what I want to see. Metal trim polished not just by wax, but years of care and pride. Paint that, even though faded, glows and tells a story with each chip.
But where does that leave the slammed blue Camaro? There have to be enthusiasts who love this kind of car. And it’s not like low-riding cars with incredible paint jobs are insignificant—Gypsy Rose, the most famous lowrider of them all, was recently added to the National Historic Vehicle Register. Look at that car, and tell me you don’t want it.
The Camaro owes itself to Gypsy Rose, and cars like it. It’s a love letter written in steel and paint, a nostalgic ode. It will always have a place in the annals of automotive culture. But nostalgia doesn’t have to trap us or limit us. That’s what Autorama showed me this year. The Camaro is a beautiful, though tepid, re-tread. The bikes, the Skylines, that truck—these were breaths of fresh spring air.
“Shiki no Uta” translates to “Song of Four Seasons.” The singer recounts her past, wandering the warm fields with someone she deeply cared for; now that time has past, and she grieves for her past happiness. But she doesn’t let that stop her. As the years pass, she’s stopped dwelling on what was, and looks towards what will be. She’s on a quest to see her beloved again, strengthened by the kindness they shared together.
Thinking of the past, we can also look towards the future. As we weep for what was lost, we can still be inspired to preserve—no, celebrate, the memories. Winter is over, spring is here, heralded by the dancing wild flowers of the road.
And again, I count the days to Autorama.